Tag Archives: Sandra Vargas

Minnesota Comeback: Nexus of Influence for School Board Race?

July 5, 2016

Will Minnesota Comeback play a starring role in Minneapolis’s 2016 school board race?

In Nashville and Indianapolis, Minnesota Comeback’s brothers-in-arms, known as “Nashville RISE” and “The Mind Trust,” have attempted to do just that, in their own cities’ elections. On June 16, education policy analyst, Andy Spears, wrote about this for his blog, Tennessee Education Report. In his posts, Spears tries to devise just who and what Nashville RISE is, and why they have jumped into the Metro Nashville School Board (MNSB) race. In so doing, he cites Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust as reference points. 

Must-read: “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools”

Quick overview: Nashville RISE, Minnesota Comeback and The Mind Trust are three of the twenty-four splinter groups–or “harbormasters“–under the wing of the Memphis-based reform outfit, Education CitiesEducation Cities is funded by the usual billionaire suspects, yet its overlord-like connection to all of these offshoots is not exactly well-known. Instead, each group–Minnesota Comeback included–maintains an image of homespun helpmate for their city’s ever-struggling public school systems. (Background on Minnesota Comeback can be found here.)

Nashville RISE has landed in some hot water lately, by trying to insert itself–in a less than transparent way–into Nashville’s school board race, according to Spears:

The involvement of Project Renaissance/Nashville RISE in this year’s MNPS school board races has been the source of a bit of controversy, from promoting (then deleting) an event with Stand for Children to a Phil Williams story raising questions about the source of funding and lack of disclosure.

As the Phil Williams story points out, Nashville RISE is incredibly well-funded, backed by money from philanthropic interests and by supporters of the charter school movement. Also backed by some donors who don’t want their identities revealed.

Nashville RISE has, among other things, produced slick video ads for its own forum on the Nashville school board race, with a promise that the group is all about building a “network of engaged parents” who will help advocate for high quality schools for all. Sounds great, as does Nashville RISE’s further mission of working to help schools “care for students and families holistically,” and so on.

But, as Spears’s blog posts point out, the group is aligned with Education Cities and its politically savvy funders, who must know that describing one’s mission as “holistic,” and “parent-driven” provides safe cover for other, more nefarious goals. Also, Nashville RISE is directly connected to Stand for Children–an organization whose transformation from legitimate advocacy group to mostly corrupted outlet for ALEC and Teach for America, et al, should serve as a warning for anyone tempted to fall for Nashville RISE’s flowery, pro-family rhetoric.

But why is Nashville RISE involved in that city’s school board race? And why might Minnesota Comeback attempt to wield influence in the 2016 Minneapolis race? 

Whitney Tilson

For answers, look no further than The Mind Trust. This Indianapolis-based group was featured in a May, 2016 American Prospect article called, “Hedging Education: How Hedge Funders Spurred the Pro-Charter Political Network.” In the article, writer Justin Miller describes how TFA alum and hedge fund success story, Whitney Tilson, started the pro-charter political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER):

Straight out of Harvard, Tilson deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach For America’s first employees in 1989. Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York. Soon after that, Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him. “It was so clearly different and so impactful,” Tilson says. “Such a place of joy, but also rigor.”

When Tilson observed pushback on the growth of KIPP, a charter school chain often linked with the “no excuses” model, he rallied a cadre of like-minded hedge funders, and started DFER:

,,,Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in. Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”

Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.

It’s not hard to believe that Tilson’s group, DFER, has had tremendous success shaping federal education policy. It has. But that’s not enough. Hedge funders don’t rest with one victory, or one successful fund. They want more. And so, Miller writes, DFER expanded:

As it found tremendous success at the federal level, DFER tried to maximize its newfound influence to leverage reform in local politics.

Here’s where Indianapolis comes in. Beginning in 2010-2011, as Miller notes, The Mind Trust used grant money to bring in “DFER, the advocacy group Stand For Children, and the network of political money that came with them.” With new political and hedge fund-fueled financial muscle, The Mind Trust helped flip the 2012 and 2014 Indianapolis school board races, stacking the board with hand-picked reform advocates, such as DFER national board member, Mary Ann Sullivan. Under the influence of DFER and its acolytes, the Indianapolis school board brought on a “friendly” superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, who has overseen the expansion of neoliberal education reform strategies. (Important note: Indianapolis, like Nashville and Minneapolis, is under the policy influence of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or “CRPE.”) 

Outgoing Minneapolis Foundation head, Sandra Vargas, is the board chair of 50CAN

In 2011, the reform landscape shifted in Minneapolis, too, when the local RKMC Foundation, started by attorney Mike Ciresi, provided seed money to outside education reform outfits, such as Teach for America, Educators for Excellence, MinnCAN and SFER (Students for Education Reform). The RKMC Foundation, which is closely aligned with the Minneapolis Foundation and its market-based reform priorities, is also a strong supporter of Minnesota Comeback. (Amy Hertzel, McKinsey & Co. alum and former education policy person for the Minneapolis Foundation, is now a “Partner” at Education Cities.)

In 2012, just like in Indianapolis, Minneapolis saw the most money ever spent on its once-lowly, but suddenly high stakes, school board race. Teach for America alum and new Minneapolis resident, Josh Reimnitz, won a spot on the school board with a little help from well-connected friends. Here’s a taste of that simpler time, when a five-figure race (Reimnitz raised close to $40,000 in 2012) was considered extravagant and shocking:

An example of how the TFA network helped Reimnitz was an October fundraiser that raised about 15 percent of his campaign treasury. It was held at the Edina home of Matthew Kramer, TFA’s national president, who is married to a TFA alum who works for a group that promotes high-quality charter schools.

An independent expenditure of about $6,000 for a mailing sent by the political arm of New York-based school reform group 50CAN, for which Kramer is board chair, also drew complaints. It was the first school board donation by the young group, which has focused on legislative contests in the East.

–Minneapolis Star Tribune, November, 2012: “Minneapolis school election has national implications

Fast forward to 2014. Then, outside investors such as Michael Bloomberg and California venture capitalist and TFA board member, Arthur Rock, deluged the Minneapolis school board race with an eye-popping $250,000 in campaign funds. 

What can I do for you?

That money was funneled through a pop-up PAC, the “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund,” led by TFA alum and MinnCAN boss, Daniel Sellers. (MinnCAN is a franchise of 50CAN, also started by East Coast hedge funders.) This fund famously backed two candidates (from afar, of course, thanks to Citizens United)–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and attempted to defeat incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. 

In a 2014 interview, Sellers downplayed the mountain of outside money shadowing the race, saying the contributions from people like Bloomberg were nothing more than an “indication that they care about Minneapolis.” (Sellers is now the policy chair for Minnesota Comeback’s “coalition.”) 

The money helped land Samuels on the school board, but Gagnon made it anyway, while Altamirano did not. Perhaps that is why this year’s school board race has, thus far, been relatively quiet. Will investors squander more hard-earned, hedge fund dollars on the 2016 Minneapolis race, if their estimated ROI is minimal?

Enter Minnesota Comeback. This group, like its counterparts in Nashville and Indianapolis, has the bank account and political connections to make a big splash in this year’s race, albeit from a dignified, Citizens United distance (for a primer on how this is done, look to 2014). While no candidate forums appear to have been scheduled, yet, (unlike August 2014, when, for example, the dubious “People’s Forum” was held in Minneapolis), the first round of campaign finance reports for school board candidates is due on August 6.

Those reports should reveal which Minneapolis school board candidates are getting what money–asked for or not–from the cabal of DFER-like reformers in Minnesota and beyond.

Thus far, there is no real contest for the one citywide spot, which is likely to go to incumbent, Kim Ellison. Seats in districts 2, 4 and 6 are being contested, with incumbents Josh Reimnitz (4) and Tracine Asberry (6) running despite failing to secure the endorsement of Minneapolis’s Democratic party (both had said they would not run without this endorsement, but later entered the race at the last minute).

School board seats secured with reform resources could help Minnesota Comeback achieve its goal of bringing “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” to Minneapolis by 2025. (The focus on “high quality seats” rather than students or schools is a popular Education Cities marketing pitch, perhaps meant for venture capitalist ears.) In an era of low funding and high expectations for public ed, anything seems possible. 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Star Power: R.T. Rybak to Lead Minneapolis Foundation

May 2, 2016

The stars sure seem to be aligning for former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak’s lately. Recently, he got an actual star on the hallowed outside wall of First Avenue (perhaps because of the “Prince Permit” he helped secure for the club, while mayor, or because of his super-cool-guy mayor stage dives). 

Now, he has vaulted to the top of the local philanthropist world. Many have suspected that Rybak would be first in line to take over at the Minneapolis Foundation when current president, Sandra Vargas, retires this summer, and today, these rumors were confirmed. 

Mpls Fdn RybakAround noon, a smiling photo of Rybak graced email inboxes across the Twin Cities, as the formal announcement came through:

“After a long and robust national search, the Board of Trustees of the Minneapolis Foundation has selected R. T. Rybak to become the seventh CEO/President in the Foundation’s history.”

A long and robust search? That seems odd, since most people assumed Rybak would be the one to fill Vargas’s reform-built shoes at the Foundation. Vargas has been busy while head of the Minneapolis Foundation, by serving as the board chair of the national 50CAN ed reform group (parent to local offshoot, MinnCAN).

Under her leadership, the Foundation has directed incredible resources towards bringing the market-based education reform movement home to roost in MInneapolis. Here are some examples of that:

  • Teach for America
  • 2013’s RESET campaign, which was a festival of sorts for half-baked, top down reform plans
  • MN Comeback, the latest iteration of sure-fire solutions for the ever-failing Minneapolis Public Schools

Will Rybak follow Vargas down the yellow brick road of ed reform? The Minneapolis Foundation seems to think so. Today’s announcement assured email recipients that Rybak has been “very supportive” of the foundation’s work in education, among other initiatives. This support will allow Rybak to “hit the ground running” when he takes over on July 1, according to the email’s author, John Sullivan.

Rybak’s own past suggests that he will have no problem following Vargas’s lead. Aside from his reputation as a stage diving, bike riding groovy mayor, he has embraced not only Teach for America, but also the rap about how certain charter schools “outperform” district schools. These two concepts–the “transformational” powers of Teach for America and charter schools that “beat” out regular old public schools–are ripped right out of the neoliberal playbook on how to “fix” our schools. 

Rybak will have to leave behind his position at Generation Next, which creates an opening for some other bright star. Departing interim superintendent Michael Goar’s name has been mentioned, but he is more likely to end up taking over for Pam Costain at Achieve Mpls, the school district’s official “nonprofit partner” (as opposed to the unofficial ones, such as MN Comeback and the Minneapolis Foundation).

Musical chairs! What will all of this mean for the Minneapolis schools, in an era where Minnesota legislators seem to be doing the absolute minimum to support public education in this state? 

I’m not sure. But while we wait and see, here are two good reads:

  • Joanne Barkan’s recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Charitable Plutocracy,” is about education reform and the growing power of private foundations. Barkan’s article includes this gem: “…anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.”
  • The recent news that the sugar daddy of the privatization/charter school movement, the Walton Foundation, is taking its money and running from several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis. This might hamper MN Comeback’s plans for Minneapolis, or it might make them more dependent on the kindliness of local groups like the Minneapolis Foundation.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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McKinsey & Friends in Minneapolis: Strong Arm Tactics

February 22, 2016

Fifth in a series: While the Minneapolis school board wrestles with an extended, dramatic superintendent search, I am exploring how the Minneapolis schools fell under the influence of today’s pervasive global education reform movement. Click on these links to get to Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

“Never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do….”

–McKinsey & Company founder James O. McKinsey, as quoted in Duff McDonald’s 2013 book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey & Its Secret Influence on American Business

If 2007 was the high point of McKinsey & Company’s involvement in the Minneapolis Public Schools–thanks to the hopeful buzz created by the firm’s pro bono plan for the district–then 2013 could easily be seen as the low point. That year, the buzz wore off, as a companion market-based reform PR strategy, called “Let’s RESET Education,” hit the local airwaves, and floundered.

In 2013, the “RESET” campaign, which was brought to us by the Minneapolis Foundation, put on three beautifully promoted public events. The events were dripping with legitimacy, since it seemed that everybody who was anybody was on board with the RESET mission to promote “proven strategies” for closing the “achievement gap” (such as the venture capital-friendly strategy of constantly monitoring student “progress” through technology).  The RESET events were even co-hosted by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), and held at MPR’s storied Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. 

But the events themselves were embarrassing, and are rumored to have caused a lot of blowback for MPR, which is supposed to, you know, represent the pinnacle of journalistic integrity. In hindsight, the naivete, or collusion, is stunning.

The kick-off RESET/MPR event featured an awkward interaction with Connecticut charter school operator, Steven Perry. Perry, who has since fallen from grace due, in part, to accusations of bullying and abuse at his once-miraculous charter schools, brought his bombastic style to the RESET campaign by referring to teachers unions as roaches that needed to be snuffed out. Perry’s jaw-dropping performance was followed by two other events, featuring musician and reform advocate, John Legend, and Mayme Hostetter, of the very odd RELAY Graduate School of Education.

Hmm. The RESET campaign had been sold as a “reasonable” dive into much-needed reforms by Beth Hawkins, who was then working as an education blogger for local online media outlet MinnPost. 

From a MinnPost piece, announcing Matt Kramer’s new job

Here is where the tangled media-PR-promotional campaign lines really get crossedHawkins was the moderator of the Perry RESET event. She also promoted it on her blog, Learning Curve. Another person on the RESET panel that night was local charter school operator, Eli Kramer. MinnPost was started by Eli’s father, Joel Kramer, who is also father to Matt Kramer, former McKinsey consultant and co-CEO of Teach for America.

Matt Kramer did pro bono work for Teach for America while a McKinsey consultant in New York City, and hopped from Harvard to McKinsey to TFA without ever having to work as a classroom teacher (he is also still listed as a board member of TFA’s less celebrated side group, Leadership for Educational Equity). This head-spinning situation prompted Hawkins to have to explain herself in most blog posts, through a “Kramer Disclaimer“:

Full, obligatory Kramer Disclaimer: Hiawatha Academies’ executive director is Eli Kramer, son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. The MinnPost Kramers are not involved in assigning or editing stories that involve their family members who are active in education issues.

MinnPost is a non-profit news source, and, as such, is dependent on what some would call the “non-profit industrial complex.” One of MinnPost’s funders is, and was, the Minneapolis Foundation, whose RESET campaign MinnPost was promoting through Hawkins’ Learning Curve blog. 

Things feel a little less snug today, since Hawkins has dropped the neutrality charade for good, and is now a “writer-in-residence” at Education Post, a well-funded PR platform for the reform strategies most favored by the 1%. MinnPost, too, is now run by Andrew Wallmeyer, who was, interestingly, a “Summer Fellow” in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2011, in between earning his MBA and becoming a Minneapolis-based McKinsey consultant.

MinnPost was founded in 2007, just as McKinsey was helping strategically redesign the Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2014, MinnPost received a two-year, $200,000 Bush Foundation “education ecosystem” grant, due to its position as a “’go-to’” source of education news for elected officials, education advocates and school leaders.” -A few already flush, already PR-saturated education reform groups like MinnCAN and Educators for Excellence (E4E) also received “ecosystem” grants in 2014. (MinnCAN and Eli Kramer’s Hiawatha Academies charter school network were also partners in the RESET campaign, as was Teach for America.)

Here is the Bush Foundation’s explanation of what the ecosystem grants were supposed to do:

We are interested in creating the most favorable ecosystem possible for organizations working to reduce educational disparities and improve outcomes for all students in the region. We believe a supportive ecosystem requires access to critical data, a favorable policy environment and the sharing of best practices. –

It works out great, then, to have your own PR machine, disguised as an objective news source, in your back pocket, helping create that “favorable policy environment.” And the policies are always from the top, and never driven from the bottom up.

RESET might just have been too much, too soon. Too much PR with too little substance, making it easier for those paying attention to catch on to what has seemed to be more of an assault on the Minneapolis Public Schools than a desire to save it. The RESET website is still up, but the campaign appears to have morphed into MN Comeback, another moneyed group aiming to reshape the Minneapolis schools from a 10,000 foot point of view.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson released her SHIFT plan for the district, which includes many of the RESET strategies. Campaign messages about the importance of more time in the classroom, empowered school leaders, and e€ffective teaching bolstered public perception of the Shift plan.

–RESET Education 2013 Summary Report

Up next: MN Comeback, In Detail

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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